Cults of Personality and Guruism in Martial Arts (and ways to fight it)

Quick Note: The point of this article is to point out experiences that I’ve had and been told about regarding certain prevalent behaviors in the martial arts community. To that end, I’ve taken out a lot of names and specific details. If some of the stories seem vague, it’s because I’m trying to make a larger point– and decidedly not trying to start drama by putting certain individuals in the community on blast. If you think you know who I’m talking about, it’s possible that you’re correct– but I won’t confirm or deny it for you. I’ve heard enough stories similar to my own that, even if you doubt my own truthfulness, you won’t doubt the dozens of stories just like it.

The Phone Call

The phone call had been going on for forty minutes, and I was getting nowhere. I was talking to the head instructor of my martial arts organization shortly after my own instructor had resigned from said organization. I was due to move to the town where the head instructor lived and taught in two months. I was due to take my shodan (black belt) test under him in two weeks. But there was a hitch. The head instructor had informed me in no uncertain terms that if I wanted to remain in his organization, I could never train at my current dojo ever again. This hit me like a ton of bricks– I felt like a pawn, pulled between two divorcing parents, and I told him as much. My dojo instructor had  encouraged me to go– he said I should do what I need to do to continue my development as a martial artist. Everyone else encouraged me to lie– to say I wouldn’t go back and then do so quietly. A lot of other people that were friends with my dojo instructor did just that. They wanted to have their cake and eat it too.

But I was young and idealistic and believed that martial arts were about honor. I based my identity off of my training, and that identity, one of an honorable person engaged in an honorable warrior tradition, was in huge jeopardy. I wouldn’t be made a liar. Not about this. So I asked the head instructor, through an intermediary, if I could call him and discuss the matter with him directly. I was informed that his door was always open– and then my call was screened. Eventually, I managed to get him on the phone. After forty minutes of back and forth, his ultimatum was clear: either you’re with me, or against me. Either you’re loyal to me, or you’re loyal to him. I told him I would need to think about it. We said goodbye. I sat down on the floor and cried.

I was seventeen years old.

The head instructor was in his sixties.

How was I supposed to prepare for this?

It’s not me, it’s you

I’ll keep the coda short, because the long version is boring and because, even though this happened fifteen years ago, it still hurts, the way your first bad breakup always hurts a little. I quit the organization, two weeks before my black belt test. I sent my resignation letter to the members of my dojo and my (now) former organzation as well as to the head instructor.  I received a lot of great feedback and encouragement from all but one person. The head instructor never responded. Not a word.

I still ended up moving to the head instructor’s town, and although I didn’t see the head instructor, I saw my other friends from his dojo. I was told, through intermediaries, that I was allowed to train with them, but not at the dojo– and then I wasn’t. I was told I was allowed to help with non-official classes (self defense seminars, open mats, etc) and train with people in an unofficial capacity– and then I wasn’t. After a few months had gone by, and following many discussions (through intermediaries– are you detecting a theme?) with the head instructor, the thaw finally came– I would be allowed to train with my friends again, though the black belt my own instructor had tested me for would not be recognized. I accepted the demotion, eager to train. However, I would soon learn that Oscar Wilde was right when he said “There are only two tragedies in life. The first is not getting what you want; the second is getting it.”

I went back to training, but I may as well have had a Scarlet A over my chest. I remember meeting one senior instructor who, upon my introducing myself, hesitated and said “Ohhhh… you’re that Nick.”

I was that Nick. And I always would be. This was my first lesson about why it’s a bad idea to get back together with your ex. My time training was split evenly between working with people who had no clue who I was or what I had been through (which was great) and people who gave me the hairy eyeball because they knew who I was and what had happened with me. They knew that I was not a 100% loyal company man and they took that out on me.

A few months later, we were all out at dinner after a seminar. I talked a bit with the head instructor. Our relationship had cooled from what it had been previously, when as a younger man I had basically worshiped him, but we were on the mend. As he were leaving, he stopped me in the parking lot and said “Nick, I want you to know I forgive you for what happened.”

“But [Instructor],” I said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

He had no response.

I never went back.

This is my story, but I know it’s not unique to me. That head instructor had, in fact, done something very similar with his instructor. The martial arts community is filled with dozens of such schisms: teacher raises student, abuses trust of student, student quits and opens his own shop, goes on to do exactly what his teacher did to him. Lather, rinse, repeat. Hundreds of phone calls just like mine. Thousands of stories of what, at the end of the day, is a mix of politics, guruism, and physical/psychological abuse.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/oscar_wilde_103785h
There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/oscar_wilde_103785

Humans are social creatures, and where there is no hierarchy we will create one. Within the context of eastern martial arts, the belt system (borrowed from the handicap system of the game of Go by Jigoro Kano) has become a way to establish and maintain a very specific pecking order. Where belts and ranks and titles may have once represented only ones’ skill on the mat, today they often represent so much more off the mat– and so much less while training. While competitive arts have a more “earned” component to their belts, these abusive behaviors and relationships are still prevalent there as well.

But this is not an article about ranks specifically. Nor is this an article about martial arts politics, which is its own dumpster fire of a topic. This is an article about how people find power in a very small, very specific sphere. This is an article about the ways in which power corrupts, and the ways you can recognize that it’s time for you to make a difficult choice.

To be clear, I was never actually physically or sexually abused, though there are unfortunately countless examples of martial arts instructors (among other authority figures in every walk of life) violating that physical and emotional trust. But what I went through was, in retrospect, psychologically abusive, and I’m glad I found my way out. Often, people in abusive relationships don’t immediately realize how abusive it is. I sure didn’t. I do now.

Warning Signs 

Looking back, there are a number of things I should have recognized as problems but experience is often the best teacher. Below I’ve listed red flags that either I have encountered personally or had recounted to me from personal friends.

Red Flag: Glowing, sycophantic praise is common and, if not actively required, discreetly encouraged.

“It’s such an honor to be one of Sensei’s students.”

“I consider being in this organization the greatest blessing of my life.”

“Sensei is simply on another level. I can never hope to be as good as he is, as a martial artist or as a person.”

“It’s humbling just to be in Sensei’s presence. He is a true, TRUE master.”

Have you heard anything like this in your training? I have, in these words, across a number of different arts and organizations. I think it comes from two different places. The first place is one of sycophant brown-nosing: a lot of instructors are happy to let their students deify them, and bestow ranks/titles/accolades on those who do it best, regardless of physical ability. But I’ve also heard people talk this way on forums their instructors do not check, or in private conversations their instructors will never hear. Therefore the other place this attitude comes from is guruism: many people look for a person who (they think) has all the answers. They place their instructor, or their instructor’s instructor, on a pedestal. They fail Basho’s call to action: ” Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.” If you spend your life in your teacher’s shadow, you’ll never see your own light.

How to Fight It: If humility is supposed to be a virtue taught in martial arts, it should start at the top, not at the bottom. The best instructors I’ve ever had absolutely refused to let me address them by any title. “Save the ‘Shihan’ stuff for the dojo,” one told me after my first class. “I’m (First Name), or if that makes you uncomfortable, Mr. (Last Name).” Anyone who demands you utilize their title(s) off the mat is not an automatic disqualifier but is a cause for concern. Remember again that your instructor is a person, not a title. Resist the urge to join in effusive, unnecessary ego stroking. If you are required or encouraged to sniff your instructor’s throne, or if you see people who do so advancing beyond the scope of their abilities, pack your bags.

Red Flag: The Instructor is omniscient and infallible.

Did you know that just by putting on a black belt, you get better at martial arts? I learned that the hard way when I stopped wearing my rank for a while. Suddenly, people whom I could throw effortlessly were locking down, telling me how “tight” I was and how I needed to do X, Y and Z to fix it. This isn’t limited to compliant training, either. When I boxed, there was a distinct difference working with people who knew me as an assistant trainer versus people who knew me as a short, stocky ginger. The former gave me respect– the latter did not.

Accordingly, I’ve seen how the perception of power can influence how people react to an instructor. Whether due to the power of suggestion or because they don’t want to cross their instructor, people will tank hard for the instructor. Additionally, there is a belief in certain martial arts that once you reach a certain point, you are beyond reproach, both in your opinions on martial arts and everything else. This is a lie (resistance training matters, even for senior instructors, if they wish to continue improving) but also a belief that that proficiency extends off the mat. The idea that someone being very good at one skill means they’ve figured everything else out is a myth, and one that students and instructors are happy to perpetuate. At its best, this is harmless brown-nosing. At its worst, it leads to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse.

How to Fight It: It is my hope that your instructor’s physical abilities fill you with awe. If they didn’t have something that you felt you absolutely had to learn, why would you still be there? That said, someone being good at a physical skill does not make them a god. No one is perfect, and no one has all the answers. On the mat, an instructor should have charge of their class– unless they’re asking you to do something injurious or otherwise abusive, their job is to keep their students safe and teach them their art (in that order), and you should strive to follow their lead. But that authority SHOULD NOT EXTEND OFF THE MAT. If your instructor is a friend or confidante? That’s fine. I’m very close with a lot of my instructors. But they advise, not demand. Remember that there is a difference and don’t suffer instructors who demand things of you, rather than advise them.

Red Flag: The head instructor makes themselves into a figurehead, and passes down decisions via subordinates (if any decisions are made at all)

Remember when I mentioned above that despite claiming to have an “open-door policy”, the gentleman at the beginning of my story was screening calls? That edicts were passed down not by him but by his senior students representing him? None of this is a good sign. Whether at the school level or organizational level, we live in a world where communication is shockingly easy. A leader is supposed to lead, and if they don’t, they’re not a leader at all. This also opens the door for subordinates to assert themselves in abusive ways.

How To Fight It: While martial arts politics is its own topic, allow me to say this: Many people feel as though they lack control over their lives, and will take whatever power is given to them. You see it in HOA’s. You see it on church councils. You see it in martial arts organizations. If you don’t want that to happen to you, don’t play the game. It will be hard at times. You may get passed over for promotions. You may not get the fancy titles that get bestowed to sycophants. You may have to answer to someone far junior to you in terms of training time, skills and experience. All of this is okay. Those ranks and titles? They’re all made up. Every last one of them. They are, to quote Carl Sagan, “a fraction of a dot.”

And I understand that it may not always be possible for the head of a multinational martial arts organization to respond personally to every inquiry. But if it’s something that affects you directly, or an instructor that you know personally, having to go through a subordinate not only destroys the relationships that are so important within martial arts (or any human interactions) but is also used to shield the figurehead leader from potential bad press from their “hard decisions”. If it’s always someone else’s decision and the leader’s hands are tied, the leader can’t be the bad guy. But if it’s always someone else’s decision, and they refuse to comment on it or influence it, are they really a leader?

Red Flag: Cross-training discouraged or prohibited

An acquaintance of mine trained in a martial art for a number of years, earning his black belt. Afterward, feeling a bit burnt out, he took a break from training and eventually took up a different martial art, wanting to try something new. He attended a social function with members of his old training group and, at one point, his head instructor cornered him. After confirming that my acquaintance was training elsewhere (in a completely different art with a completely different focus, mind you) the instructor looked him square in the eye and says “What, you don’t think I have anything to teach you anymore?”

Of course, this is not about learning or teaching physical skills. This is about control. The instructor was trying to see how much control he had over his student. Thankfully, the answer was not enough and my friend, to date, has not gone back.

How To Fight It: It’s a telling sign that looking back upon venerated names in martial arts, all of them cross-trained: I can’t find one that only studied a single discipline their entire life. These are the masters we venerate, and the masters our masters venerate– people who were willing to expand their knowledge and dedicate their lives to fomenting their knowledge into one curriculum. So why is that when we try to expand our circle of knowledge beyond what one person can teach us, offense is taken, and in personal terms? They shouldn’t take it personally, and you shouldn’t let them appeal to your personal relationship to keep you trapped somewhere that you’re unhappy. As Michael Corleone would say, “It’s not personal… it’s strictly business.” Those venerated masters got to where they were by forging their own path- don’t live your life in the rut someone else is trying to carve out for you.

Conclusion

As I wrote this article, I was reminded of an email I got from one of the most sycophantic senior instructors in my old organization who posited, among other things: “I wonder what you’ll think of this situation and how you chose to react to it in ten years. Sometimes age and the passage of time allow for clarity.” His subtext was clear: You’re a dumb kid and you don’t know anything. I wonder how badly you’ll regret the decisions you’re making. It’s been well over ten years, but if I were compelled to respond my letter might read like this:

 


Hello, [Brown-noser!]

You are right that I made a number of bad decisions after my initial good decision to leave your martial arts organization. With the benefit of hindsight, you are absolutely correct that I was wrong. I was wrong to care what you, or anyone else in that organization thought about me. I was wrong to care what [Head Instructor] thought of me. I was wrong not to realize how much bigger the world of martial arts was outside of this small glimpse into it. While I had some genuinely great times, and while I considered all of you a part of my family, sometimes family can be toxic, and a family that would abandon you over the minutiae of organizational politics is no family at all, is it?

Looking back, I see everything that happened to me as a gift. If it hadn’t happened, my growth as a martial artist, and as a person, would have been stunted as I stayed in an abusive relationship. I’m so glad I had the foresight, and counsel of actual friends and family, to advise me to take the frightening leap into the unknown. 

As with most breakups, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees while you’re going through it. Like most of my breakups, I’ve learned something valuable. Like all of my breakups, with the passage of time I’ve realized how incompatible we were– and how I would never, ever go back.

Good luck, and I hope your many honorary titles and ranks will make you happy until the proverbial Eye of Sauron turns on you and you’re forced out as well. Don’t worry, though– it’ll be the best thing that ever happens to you.

-Nick


This article has dredged up a lot of old memories from my almost 3 decades of martial arts. Loyalty is given, not owed. You don’t owe anyone anything except to train earnestly and enjoy your training. To be clear, I know I didn’t have it that bad. Other people have suffered far worse abuses from their instructors, and it is my hope that the identification of some of these red flags can help someone realize that, no matter how hard it seems right now, that sometimes it’s better to leave and strike out into something new. The world of martial arts is bigger than ever before, and no one else is going to help you find your place in it. I hope you all find a place within that large world where you can grow and be happy. Life is too short for anything else.

9 thoughts on “Cults of Personality and Guruism in Martial Arts (and ways to fight it)

    1. Thanks! I’ve been pretty blown away by the response so far. Helped me to realize that this is not an isolated issue. Moving forward, I’m going to work on a few more articles about MA culture, what’s wrong with it, and how to fix it so that the stuff that’s happened to so many of us hopefully doesn’t continue in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

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